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March 2005 Archives

March 3, 2005

A Palm Beach primavera premiere

Let the games begin.

To a baseball fan, those words might as well be “Let there be light.”

Today the Orioles begin their spring exhibition season against the Florida Marlins in Palm Beach, and the preparation for Opening Day revs into first gear. The game is not being televised, but like most preseason affairs it is being broadcast on WBAL radio (1090 AM) and over the Internet for MLB.com Gameday Audio subscribers.

From the Orioles' perspective, this March brings less uncertainty compared to last year, but there is still room for surprises. Baltimore's manager is not as green as he was a year ago, having gotten his feet wet—and at times, held to the flame—during his uneven debut season. Virtually all of the starting position players from last year's roster are returning; the only major lineup addition is the new right fielder (you may have heard about him). Several hungry hitters will try out for a handful of seats on the bench: there are two reserves virtually guaranteed to make the roster, and the primary backup infielder's identity is fairly secure, but the backup catcher's is not. If the club keeps eleven pitchers, there will probably be space for an additional hitter from among the nonroster invitees.

The pitching picture is a bit murkier. The final slot (or two?) in the rotation is up for grabs, and the order of the starters remains unsettled. The bullpen will have a few new faces, and a rearrangement of relief roles is expected.

Primavera primer

For those who have been hibernating all winter, here's a categorical summary of the goings and comings and stayings in Orioleland during the 2004-2005 offseason. Within each category, players are grouped according to their expected 2005 impact (highest impact at the top) in the estimation of this writer. Click on the players' names for statistics. And click on the subheads to link to some classic songs of the past.

Continue reading "A Palm Beach primavera premiere" »

March 4, 2005

Sosa, so far

Now that a month has passed since the Sammy Sosa trade, a few thoughts:

The Sammy Show: Baltimore

The January 30 article here discussing the trade has attracted by far the most comments of any article on this site since we converted to the weblog format last year. That response includes three comments from me and four from a trollish Chicago fan, but also several reactions from first-time posters, including a Dominican Sosa fan.

The wide-ranging response illustrates how much of a lightning rod for public opinion Sosa is, and not just for Chicagoans and Baltimoreans. He has the kind of outsize personality that inspires adoration when things are going well (e.g., 1998-2002) and ridicule when things go badly (e.g., after the corked-bat misstep of 2003). In Latin-American circles, Sosa remains a folk hero, his star tarnished only slightly by the events of the last two years. Even more than the Orioles' best player, Miguel Tejada, Sosa is an internationally recognized name and face. Sosa's arrival has people thinking and talking about the Orioles again, and that counts for something.

Sosa has enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts since joining Baltimore. Among Oriole fans, the response to the trade has been mostly positive, if guardedly so. The Orioles' 2005 ticket sales reportedly got a major boost the week the trade was announced. Local and national media stories about Sosa's change of address have been cropping up regularly over the past month.

Sosa has already held two press conferences since joining the Orioles: one on the day the trade was made official (February 3) and another on the day he reported to camp (February 23). (The audio and video for the press conferences can be streamed from the Orioles' official site, although the audio level for the second conference was set too low, making it largely unintelligible.) During those question-and-answer sessions, Sosa said all the right things: he sidestepped reporters' attempts to goad him into badmouthing his former team, and he expressed unmistakable excitement about joining the Orioles. He sounded willing to cede the spotlight (or part of it, anyway) to Tejada, who he acknowledged is the leader of the team. If early signs are an indicator of things to come, Sosa should give the Orioles an enhanced media presence in 2005, no matter what he does on the field.

The response hasn't been all positive. Many, if not most, Cubs fans thought it was time for Sosa to leave the Windy City after his act wore thin last year. According to an unscientific survey done on the Chicago Tribune's web site, 76% of respondents thought that the Cubs were a better team without him. But Chicagoans' individual reactions were fractured; some had hoped for a more amenable parting with their longtime icon, or at least a better return in trade, and instead criticized manager Dusty Baker or GM Jim Hendry. A few Chicago-area reporters said that Sosa's personality had long irritated them, but that it only became an issue when his performance dropped.

Despite wanting to start his Baltimore career with a clean slate, Sosa has not given up all of his old habits, and the dogged media won't allow him to forget his past. Notably, Sun columnist Peter Schmuck's mention of Sosa's request to have a limousine transport him from his hotel to his physical exam in Baltimore evoked derisive comments from Chicagoans about Sosa's diva-esque lifestyle. And toward the end of Sosa's first Oriole press conference (18:22), a reporter half-jokingly asked if someone in Chicago owed Sosa a boom box (his previous one was allegedly wrecked at the end of last season by an unnamed, Whitney Houston-hating teammate). Sosa's reply (“No, because I have a new one here”) brought on a new round of jeers—and fears. Fortunately, Oriole skipper Lee Mazzilli quelled any possibility that Sosa's musical tastes would become a distraction by re-affirming his policy of no clubhouse music before games. Looks like Sosa will have to get an iPod if he wants a pregame salsa fix. But Mazzilli has no problem with postgame music, particularly when the Orioles win, so expect lo-fi, bass-heavy Latin beats to be blasting in plenitude this year.

Continue reading "Sosa, so far" »

March 7, 2005

Thompson passes on

A momentous death has hit the Baltimore sports community. Chuck Thompson, the longtime broadcast voice of the Orioles and Colts, passed away Sunday at the age of 83 after suffering a stroke on Saturday.

Thompson was the Orioles' primary radio (or, at times, television) announcer from 1955 to 1987, with the exception of a five-year hiatus from 1957 to 1961. That interruption was the result of a dispute between his primary employer, Gunther Brewing, and the main sponsor of the Orioles' broadcasts, National Brewing (of Natty Boh fame), and led to his covering the Washington Senators for a few of those years. Prior to that, he had begun his broadcasting career in Pennsylvania in 1939, and in the late '40s he moved south to call games for the International League Orioles and the football Colts. In 1993, Thompson became the seventeenth broadcaster honored with the Ford C. Frick award by the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. He continued to call Oriole games on a part-time schedule from 1991 until 2000, when his eyesight was hampered by macular degeneration.

The Sun has gone the distance in its appreciation of Thompson and his career by constructing what amounts to an online shrine to Thompson on its web site. It includes a lengthy obituary by Ed Waldman; eulogistic columns by Michael Olesker, David Steele, John Eisenberg, and Peter Schmuck; a timeline of Thompson's career combined with explanations of two of his signature lines, “Ain't the beer cold!” and “Go to war, Miss Agnes!”; and links to the text of several Sun articles from the recent past about Thompson.

In other sources, the Washington Post has published an obit by Matt Schudel and a fond remembrance by William Gildea. The Washington Times has a short feature on Thompson by Dick Heller. Also, Gary Washburn of MLB.com has posted a brief account. For more on Thompson's life and work, read his autobiography, Ain't the Beer Cold!, which was published in 1996.

Personal thoughts

I started following the Orioles as Thompson was passing the microphone to Jon Miller in the mid-1980s, so my personal memories of Thompson are limited to the part-time work he did over the last two decades as well as excerpts of classic games that the Orioles have broadcast during rain delays. After hearing other announcers over the years, I began to appreciate how masterful Thompson was at calling a baseball game. He had a collection of talents that no play-by-play man can rightly claim to surpass: a deep, smooth baritone voice that never grew tiring; near-perfect diction and pacing that ensured none of his utterances went misheard; the ability to paint a concise verbal picture of the action as it unfolded; and a mix of stateliness and informality in his tone that made him sound like both an authority and a friend.

Thompson remains the gold standard for Baltimore sports broadcasters, and his passing will be mourned by the millions who heard him over the years. He was a beloved local figure who called the greatest moments in Orioles and Colts history.

Addendum (Mar. 10): The tributes keep coming, illustrating just how wide and deep was Thompson's reach. Notably, the Washington Times has published a reflection by Thom Loverro, who takes a Washington-centric view of Thompson's legacy. Also, Joe Gross, sports editor of the Annapolis Capital, has written a few kind words about the announcer. Over at the York Daily Record, Al Gregson, a golf reporter in York, wrote about a personal encounter he had with Thompson on the golf course. Steve Thompson, baseball editor of USA Today (and apparently no relation to Chuck), recorded some of his own indelible Thompson memories. One of the most humorous recollections of Thompson I came across was in an SI.com article from July 2004 by sportswriter and Baltimore native Frank Deford. Also on that site, baseball writer John Donovan wrote a fond farewell to Thompson at the end of his Tuesday baseball notes. The Orioles issued a statement announcing Thompson's death on Sunday, but the text appears to have been truncated in the online version.

The response from fans on the Internet has been no less expansive. Wednesday on MLB.com, the Orioles published warm notes from fans honoring Thompson and his work. The denizens of the Baseball Primer exchanged their own Thompson memories.

This could go on forever, but I'll draw the line here. WBAL TV will broadcast Thompson's memorial service live on Thursday at 11 a.m. Thanks for the memories you helped create for us, Chuck.

Young v. Palmeiro: a matter of bat

Baseball Musings blogger David Pinto, who writes one of the most popular and stimulating baseball-related blogs in existence, has posted a controversial argument in his entry “The $300,000 Solution.” In it, he advances the notion that instead of signing Rafael Palmeiro to a one-year, $4.5 million contract in January 2004, the Orioles should have given his job to prospect Walter Young, who hit .274/.343/.539 (BA/OBP/SLG) at Double-A Bowie last year. Pinto applied an early version of Bill James's major league equivalencies to Young's 2004 stats, compared them to Palmeiro's actual 2004 stats, and came to the following conclusion:

Young's OBA wouldn't be as good, but he makes up for it with his slugging percentage. If nothing else, it's pretty clear that Palmeiro wasn't worth 13 times the money. The cheap solution eluded the Orioles. And with Palmeiro back for another year, the mistake is repeated.

It's possible that Young could come close to matching Palmeiro's production in 2005 for markedly less expense, but is it really likely? Here is a counterpoint to Pinto's reasoning, based on information that Pinto may not have known or considered.

Continue reading "Young v. Palmeiro: a matter of bat" »

March 10, 2005

Two ex-Birds run afoul of the law

While Sidney Ponson's legal troubles stemming from his Christmas fight in Aruba have grabbed headlines lately, this winter has also been unkind to two Orioles who left the nest some time ago.

Jail Bird?

On Monday, February 28, Danny Clyburn was arrested in his hometown of Lancaster, South Carolina, and was given a litany of charges that included cocaine possession and resisting arrest. Clyburn, 30, had cups of coffee (actually more like sips) with the Birds in 1997 and '98 before being traded to Tampa Bay in '99 for pitcher Jason Johnson.

According to a March 4 report in the Lancaster News, on the night of his arrest Clyburn picked up a theft suspect in a Lincoln Town Car, failed to stop when signalled to do so by a trailing police car, then stopped suddenly and attempted to flee on foot but was eventually caught and handcuffed. The police found cocaine on the ground that he allegedly threw while being pursued, and they also charged him with driving under the influence, having an open container of alcohol in his vehicle, and driving without a license. His passenger (who was unidentified) escaped apprehension.

This was not Clyburn's first criminal act; two years ago he was arrested on a harassment warrant. He tried to evade the police that time as well, and when they nabbed him he had in his possession another person's driver's license, apparently intending to pass it off as his own because his own license had been suspended after a drug violation.

The latest incident disrupts Clyburn's nomadic baseball career. A second-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1992, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in 1994 and came to the O's (accompanied by Tony Nieto) in a 1995 swap with the Reds for fireballing reliever Brad Pennington. (Nationals GM Jim Bowden was Cincinnati's GM at the time.)

A middling outfield prospect for the Birds in the late '90s, Clyburn never got an extended opportunity in the majors because of the Orioles' veteran-filled roster. His minor-league numbers indicated consistently good power but poor strikeout-to-walk ratios, and his defense was nothing special. After failing to catch on in the majors with the Devil Rays in 1999 and being released in March of 2000, he quit organized baseball for two years. A phone call in 2002 brought him out of retirement and into the independent Atlantic League. There he spent the past three seasons playing for the Newark (NJ) Bears, for whom he became a two-time All-Star and a teammate of Rickey Henderson. He hit well enough last year (.334/.379/.559) that he probably would have been welcomed back if not for his most recent arrest. (Who knows? Maybe he'll avoid a long prison term and get an invitation to return anyway.) An interview with Clyburn from last August is available on the Atlantic League web site.

Swaggerty walks—soberly

In other ex-Oriole legal infractions, Bill Swaggerty, a former pitcher who appeared in 32 games for the Orioles in the mid-1980s, was convicted Tuesday of driving under the influence and received probation before judgment in Carroll County Circuit Court. The DUI incident in question occurred last July. This was actually his second such conviction in Maryland; on the first occasion, in 1989, he also received probation before judgment (legalese for an arrangement whereby a violator accepts a guilty verdict in return for probation, which if successfully completed results in an opportunity to expunge the infraction from the defendant's permanent criminal record). According to the Baltimore Sun, Swaggerty “was ordered to remain alcohol-free, to submit to random testing, to pay a $400 fine, to participate in the Mothers Against Drunk Driving victim-impact panel and to complete an outpatient alcohol program.” (Whew! If that's probation, then prison doesn't seem like such a bad option.)

Swaggerty, 49, spent more time in Triple-A than he did in the majors in the 1980s. He contributed to the Orioles' '83 championship team as an emergency starter and mop-up reliever, and in '84 he served in the same capacity but to a greater extent, appearing in a career-high 23 games. Yet in '85 and '86 he played in just one game each year for the O's, despite the acute pitching struggles of those teams. When Swaggerty wasn't pitching in the majors in '83-'86, he was a leading starter for the Rochester Red Wings of the International League. But he lacked the stuff to be considered by the organization as a top prospect. The Birds released him in the fall of 1986, and the Kansas City Royals quickly picked him up, but he never made it back to the majors. Swaggerty was an overachiever, a 26th-round pick in the 1979 draft who turned himself into a decent pitcher despite lacking first-rate talent. I'm not certain what he's been up to since he retired as a player, but he has appeared at several Orioles-related events, including this year's FanFest and Fantasy Camp.

Ordinarily I'm not terribly interested in the happenings of former Birds, but Clyburn's episode was unusual and went mostly unnoticed in Baltimore, and I happen to have a beat-up 1985 Topps card of Swaggerty, so I noticed when his name was in the news.

About March 2005

This page contains all entries posted to The Orioles Warehouse in March 2005. They are listed from oldest to newest.

February 2005 is the previous archive.

April 2005 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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